What Are They All About? Toronto FC
This past weekend the Chicago Fire hosted Toronto FC at Toyota Park and lost by a score of 2-1. The result marks a fourth consecutive loss for Chicago in league play and has them sitting in eighth place of the Eastern Conference having played at least two matches more than the teams below them. With just twelve matches left to play in this campaign, the Fire’s chances of making the playoffs are looking slim. Of their remaining fixtures, four will come against sides currently jostling for the Supporters Shield, while the other eight will be against sides directly competing for the final playoff spot in the East.
Additionally, over the last six years, on average, it has taken forty-seven points to stay above the red line. This means that Chicago will likely need to accrue eight victories from their remaining fixtures if they to see a second consecutive post-season. When you factor in a lengthy list of absentees due to injury, match congestion, and a lack of quality transfer reinforcements, it is arguably one of the hardest run ins of any MLS side. Even for the most diehard of optimists, Chicago’s recent run of form doesn’t suggest that they’ll be able to cope with it. However, there is always the chance for an MLS miracle run and it could start this weekend as the Fire visit Toronto in the second of two back to back encounters with their northern neighbors (6:00 CT on ESPN+).
Toronto enters this match on the back of a victory against Ottawa in the Canadian Championship that booked their place in the competition’s final. Although it came against lower league opposition, the win will add confidence to a Toronto side that is now on a three-match winning streak across all competitions. Greg Vanney was able to trot out another rotated lineup composed largely of TFC academy players, enabling him to rest the starters that earned a victory over Chicago at the weekend. Toronto’s task to climb out of the cellar of the East is by no means easier than Chicago’s but another victory over the Fire will have them dreaming big. Will Nelson Rodriguez’s fantastical portrayal of Chicago’s playoff chances inch closer to reality, or will Tim Bezbatchenko’s impressive run in Toronto continue? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Toronto Form Guide (all competitions): W-W-W-L-D
Previous Result: A 3-0 away victory against Ottawa in the Canadian Championship semi-final second leg.
Formation: 4-4-2; Irwin; Morrow, Hagglund, Hernandez, Zavaleta; Telfer, Chapman, Fraser, Delgado; Akinola, Altidore
Strengths: This is the third overall meeting between these two sides this season and our readers should know TFC’s strengths well. Using a breakdown of last weekend’s match specifically, let’s see where Toronto might succeed.
Busy Celebrating: In Saturday’s match, the Fire continued what has become a devastating trend for them this season. Just three minutes after Nemanja Nikolic poached a header in the box to level the encounter, Chicago conceded the game winner to Jonathan Osorio. That goal marked the fifth time this month that Chicago has conceded a goal within seven minutes of scoring. Whether it is a lack of concentration, resetting the shape of the squad, or just bad luck, this type of play cannot continue for Chicago if they are going to make a run at the playoffs. However, Toronto’s ability on the counter as well as the Fire’s desperation for points could leave them vulnerable in this category yet again.
Man the Wall: Although Chicago registered eleven shots in Saturday’s fixture, only two of those were logged as being on target. Eight of the remaining shots were taken from fifteen yards or further away (three of which were blocked), and the last shot was a tame effort by Nikolic that landed comfortably in Bono’s hands. This trend of forcing Chicago to shoot from distance and rely on set pieces to get shots from within the box was largely due to a formation shift by Greg Vanney. He has recently utilized 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations but switched back to a 3-5-2 against Chicago last weekend.
Tactically speaking, the three center backs played a deep line while Michael Bradley was tasked with breaking up play just in front of them. Additionally, although Justin Morrow and Ashtone Morgan were allowed to venture forward at times, a majority of their play in possession occurred within their own half, signaling a more conservative approach from the wing backs. While there is no guarantee that TFC will play similarly at home, forcing Chicago to break down a stubborn defensive shape—essentially calling on Katai to be the single catalyst for creativity—is perhaps the best way to exploit their attacking weaknesses.
Jozy’s Return: After a spell on the sideline that was the result of either an injury or a falling out with Vanney (depending on who you ask), Jozy Altidore made just his fourth appearance for Toronto last Saturday. Although he did not score in the encounter, his contributions in the attack were reminiscent of the Jozy of old. Twenty-five passes in hold up play, three defensive interventions, and occupying the center backs to create space for Giovinco and Osorio were the highlights of his evening and we have a feeling that his return to the score sheet is just around the corner.
Weaknesses: This Toronto side needs ten wins from their remaining fourteen matches if they are to make the playoffs, that’s twice as many victories as they have through twenty matches. No matter how this team looks on paper, that is a near impossible task. Let’s see where they might struggle on Wednesday.
We’re in the Final Third but What Do We Do Now?: Although Toronto left with all three points, their overall play was not all that inspiring. An overwhelming majority of their passes in the final third missed their intended targets, there was just one successful foray into the box during the entire ninety minutes (Osorio’s goal), and their possession advantage was largely meaningless as most of it came in the form of lateral passes at midfield. Just twelve months ago this was the most lethal attacking side in MLS and now they are struggling to compete again arguably one of the worst defenses in the league. Even if they manage to grind out another three points against Chicago, TFC’s lack of creativity given their roster should be worrisome to supporters and the technical staff alike.
False Confidence: Two victories against the USL’s Ottawa Fury and a win over a Chicago side that utilized its strongest possible lineup in a midweek Open Cup fixture are not exactly results that TFC should be shouting about. If you set aside the past week, Toronto has won just one of their last nine competitive matches. That lone result came a Philadelphia side plotting their own Open Cup success plan and rotating their squad. The bottom line is that Toronto cannot compete against better opposition. With Chicago getting desperate for points, slowly returning to fitness/health, and not having a midweek fixture, TFC could be hit with a dose of reality this weekend.
Ciao Bella: In last week’s preview we discussed the outlandish possibility of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore potentially leaving Toronto. Since then, MLS’ Bobby Warshaw and Toronto supporter blog Waking the Red have both addressed the rumors of breaking up the TFC dream team in hopes of signing younger DPs with an eye on longevity. A return to Europe for Giovinco and a Liga MX swoop for Altidore are the rumors swirling around and such speculation cannot be good for morale in Toronto. Uncertainty is the last thing that TFC need in this tumultuous time and it could impact their play on Saturday.
It is the Argos Home After All: Another peculiar statistic for this TFC side is their abysmal home form. After a series of renovations in 2015 and 2016 saw Toronto start those seasons with lengthy road trips, BMO Field has been painted as a fortress by supporters and pundits alike. TFC lost just once there on the way to their treble in 2017 and the 30,000-capacity stadium is amongst the most impressive soccer houses in North America. However, the Reds have already lost four home fixtures this season (a record bested only by Chicago’s six losses at Toyota Park) and have dropped a total of sixteen points in Hogtown. An atmosphere quieted by recent confrontations between the Front Office and the supporters won’t help them this weekend either. Chicago might just snag their third away victory of the campaign.
Prediction: Toronto’s season is on the upswing and it seems that Chicago is once again burning to the ground. TFC 3-1 Fire. Alan Gordon notches his fifth goal of the season for the visitors, Giovinco and Altidore show Vanney that perhaps a rebuild is unnecessary, Bakero adds one for good measure.